Your city could be exporting deadly air pollution – here’s why

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Air pollution is often seen as a local problem requiring local and regional solutions. Karachi, London, Lagos, Mexico City and Paris are just a few of the world’s cities grappling with poor air quality. With city-dwellers increasingly being asked to ditch the car – especially if it’s diesel – and use greener modes of transport, it’s easy to forget that air is also mobile. As a result, there’s very little attention being paid to the impact of cross-border air pollution on human health and well-being.

300 million children are currently breathing in toxic air

Globally, air pollution caused by microscopic fine particles (PM₂.₅) kills 3.5m people each year. These particles can easily enter the respiratory tract. They rank fifth worldwide among all risks to health after high blood pressure, smoking and diet. Breathing filthy air can increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, stroke and affect mental health. And it is the vulnerable in society who suffer the most, with 300m children currently breathing in toxic air. Indoor and outdoor air pollution, together with second-hand smoke, causes 570,000 deaths in children under five years of age each year, due to respiratory infections such as pneumonia.

The movement of air pollutants from transport and agricultural activities in one country can affect the air quality in another. Such as the smoke from Indonesian forest fires which has caused a toxic haze to descend over parts of Malaysia and Singapore. Another example is the atmospheric brown cloud – a transnational air pollution phenomenon which contains aerosols such as soot and dust that poses risks to human health and food security, especially in Asia.

Exporting emissions

Cross-border air pollution has been an issue for some time: in the 1970-80s, the UK was nicknamed the “dirty man of Europe” for belching out industrial sulphur emissions, which contributed to acid rain in Europe – a reputation that the Greens fear will be regained after Brexit.

But it’s only recently that the scale of the air pollution effects of international trade has been assessed, with one study suggesting that around 400,000 premature deaths occurred in 2007 in a different region of the world than the one in which the air pollutants were emitted.

Goods and services produced in one region for use by another region are responsible for 22% (762,400) of air pollution-related deaths worldwide. In particular, Chinese particle emissions were responsible for 64,800 premature deaths in other regions, including over 3,000 deaths in Western Europe and the US. By contrast, Chinese products bought in Western Europe and the US are linked to over 100,000 deaths in China in one year.

Goods and services produced in one region for use by another region are responsible for 762,400 of air pollution-related deaths worldwide.

International trade has seen many developed countries transferring their manufacturing abroad, in order to take advantage of cheap labour and lax environmental standards in often less wealthy nations. As a result, air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, has effectively been exported to developing countries.

Making the switch

So, while murky grey images of smog smothered Beijing or New Delhi may prompt others to ask why they don’t clean up their act, it’s important to remember that these cities are shouldering an enormous manufacturing burden, as much of the world’s goods and services are outsourced to China and India.

There is now a need for governments to switch from calculating greenhouse gas emissions based on production to one based on consumption of goods and services. This has important implications for global climate and air mitigation policies because as much as 20% to 25% of overall carbon dioxide emissions come from the production of goods and services which are traded internationally.

Although there has been success in achieving better air quality over the past the six decades, this doesn’t erase the need to face up to big global environment challenges. Cities are responsible for around 70% of global greenhouse gases. While carbon dioxide has warming influences on the climate in the long term, short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon (a primary part of particulate matter), methane and ozone have warming influences on the climate in the near-term. Local action, such as banning diesel cars, addresses both air and climate pollutants. This can achieve immediate effects by reducing near-term warming and improving air quality levels.

There’s no coherent legal framework which aims to protect the atmosphere.

There are several international conventions to regulate air pollution and related issues. But for now, there’s no coherent legal framework which aims to protect the atmosphere. This has led to calls for a new Law of the Atmosphere to provide effective cooperation on air pollution and climate change at regional and global scales. As it stands, the likelihood of such a law gaining support is low, given the climate change scepticism exhibited by powerful world leaders such as presidents Trump and Putin.

Everyone has the right to clean air. But air pollution requires no visas, and its devastating impact can be felt far from the source. No longer can the leaders of developed nations shy away from the fact that their citizens’ consumption and lifestyle choices have a significant impact on people in others part of the world. As consumers, we have the power and the responsibility to demand better environmental and social standards – so we can all breathe life, wherever we live.

This article was first published at The Conversation

The Challenge of Transport in Sub-Saharan Africa

ImageTRANSPORT is a key challenge for Sub-Saharan Africa. It is critical importance to the delivery of sustainable cities, healthy citizens, poverty eradication and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. So how can Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries address the challenge of sustainable transport?

Road safety in Africa as a whole is extremely poor having approximately 3 per cent of the world’s motor vehicles yet accounting for 11 per cent of global road fatalities. Traffic congestion in SSA cities is on the rise with some cities approaching gridlock. The urban populations of SSA are growing rapidly, faster than in all other regions of the world, and this situation is expected to continue over the next two decades.

Urban air pollution in major SSA cities is rapidly worsening due to vehicle fleet growth, increasing distances travelled, and high rates of polluting vehicle emissions from vehicles. Globally, transport accounts for approximately 25 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions and reducing emissions from the on-road transportation sector can yield rapid and longer-term climate benefits. Yet published data on traffic congestion, air pollution, including greenhouse gases, and road safety tend to be of poor quality in SSA.

This is an issue which is partly being addressed by the Transport Environment-Science Technology (TEST) Network. A EU funded Network led by the Stockholm Environment Institute Institute and European Institute for Sustainable Transport working in partnership with universities in South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Zambia. The TEST Network aims to support Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) countries in formulating and implementing sustainable transport policies which contribute to poverty reduction and sustainable economic development.

ImageA new report written by a panel of international experts, examines the transport and environment challenges in SSA countries. The report states that transport policy decisions and the detailed spatial, sectoral and social beneficiaries of transport spending and strategies have a hugely important impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of people in SSA.

There are a large number of well documented ways in which we can improve the quality of life of Africa’s citizens. We can improve air quality and public health, remove the scourge and distress caused by death, injury and disability as a result of road crashes and increase the likelihood of widely disseminated economic gains to all sections of society.

In this social-technical-economic complex there are important democratic considerations. What do African citizens want for the future of their families, their communities their regions and their country? Given a choice of living in poverty, pollution, traffic danger and poor quality access to important health, education and training opportunities or living in a thriving, opportunity-rich, clean and safe environment it is already very clear that the latter is preferable to the former.

ImageThe TEST report argues that transport policy for SSA must be embedded in a poverty eradication policy and poverty eradication must deliver real gains in transport as it affects 800 million SSA citizens. This policy synergy provides a huge opportunity to deliver successful outcomes and they will not deliver if they move along in non-communicating parallel tracks.

The report  makes recommendations for the development of sustainable transport policies in SSA based on five central principles:

  1. Maximizing transport accessibility for all social groups, genders and income levels, so that all citizens can access health care, education, training and jobs with minimal effort, costs and journey time;
  2. Creating a safe, secure urban environment with the minimum possible risk of death and injury from road accidents;
  3. Ensuring that all public health measures deal with the debilitating and costly consequences of air pollution on human health;
  4. Freeing up urban road space by improving traffic flow conditions in a way that stimulates economic activity and job creation and avoids the generation of new traffic; and
  5. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

SSA has some very serious transport problems but these present all decision-takers and policy makers with opportunities to re-shape traditional policies to produce a step-change improvement in quality of life for citizens and to deliver the urgently needed poverty alleviation outcomes already agreed.

Policies and interventions can be re-shaped and the task now is to orchestrate the political and professional support and unwavering commitment to deliver all these virtuous outcomes.

© Gary Haq 2012

What Do Older People Think About The Environment?

We are all getting older. There are now approximately 760 million people globally aged 60-plus compared to just 200 million back in 1950. By 2050 people aged 60-plus are predicted to reach 2 billion people.

We are all getting older. There are now approximately 760 million people globally aged 60-plus compared to just 200 million back in 1950. By 2050 people aged 60-plus are predicted to reach 2 billion people.

Increased lifespan demonstrates the success of modern medicine particularly in developing countries. However, an ageing population will have major implications for health care, pensions and working practices.

An older society will require a cultural change in how we perceive and treat older people and policy makers will need to prepare for the challenges of an ageing population. Not just in terms of need but also the contribution older people can make to society in later life.

Evidence shows that some older people in certain regions of the world can be disproportionately affected by environmental problems such as air pollution, climate change-related heat waves and other natural disasters.

In addition, recent research, surveys and consultations have exposed the missed opportunities associated with the lack of closer engagement of the over 55s in general discussion on environmental issues.

It is therefore important that seniors around the world make their voices heard so that policy makers can take action to better prepare for the needs of an ageing population.

In June 2012 the environment will once again be in the international spotlight as world leaders descend on Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) for the United Nations Conference for Environment and Development or “Earth Summit”.

In an attempt to address the “missing voice” of older people and to encourage wider involvement, an consortium led by the Stockholm Environment Institute is seeking the views of older people around the world on the environmental issues of primary concern and their ideas for tackling them.

This survey is being conducted by an international consortium of older people organisations and universities. The consortium is led by SEI at the University of York (UK) and the Simon Fraser University Gerontology Research Centre (Canada) and includes Help Age International, Age UK, Community Service Volunteers’ Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme (RSVP) and the Council On The Ageing (COTA) – Victoria (Australia).

If your are over 55 then make sure your voice is heard by completing the On-line survey at www.envirosurvey55.com before the 30 April 2012.

© Gary Haq 2012